Edge fall Quarter 2003

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Imperial America

EDGE Fall Quarter 2003

Tim Chueh

Ambert Ho


What Is Imperialism?

Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism…characterized by monopoly corporations and the compulsion to export capital abroad for higher profits. Unlike capitalism in the earlier stages, in the imperialist stage, capitalism has no more progress to bring the world…the cause of contemporary militarism” – Lenin

The policy, practice, or advocacy of seeking, or acquiescing in, the extension of the control, dominion, or empire of a nation, as by the acquirement of new, esp. distant, territory or dependencies, or by the closer union of parts more or less independent of each other for operations of war, copyright, internal commerce, etc.” – Oxford dictionary
The word imperialism derives from “empire.” As such, it is useful to spend a bit of time to define the word. In working towards a minimal definition, Stanford Professor of Archaeology J. Manning in his first lecture on Ancient Empires starts with: “An empire is a territorially extensive hierarchically political organization.” Unfortunately this definition is too vague. All states encountered in human history are by definition hierarchical, and many nations today are vast compared to the empires of the ancient world. Thus, Manning rephrases his definition of empire to be: “A territorially extensive hierarchical political organization involving the rule of one or more groups over other groups of foreigners.” But what causes empire? There are two models worth explaining. One is originated by the Greek historian Thucydides, famous for the quote “The strong do what they can and the weak do what they must.” He stipulates that imperialism is a latent part of human nature, an atavism, and that empires break out whenever societal factors such as demography, technology, and/or political institutions favor their development. Dr. Michael Mann, in his book Sources of Social Power, lists the powers which govern the behavior of a state as ideological, economic, military, and political. A second, more recent theory named the Constructivist model, states that economic forces can also create the need for empire. And that in addition to the factors stated by Thucydides, ideology is also a factor. Now that we have those factors, as a preview, let us throw out some words: “Manifest Destiny, oil shortage, import tariff, Walmart.”

Imperialism is literally means “behavior exhibited by an empire”. Imperialism is the benefit an empire gets from being an empire. What are these benefits?

  • An empire often has far greater economic leverage than a small nation. It often uses political clout backed by social, economic, and military power to bully/ignore the will of smaller states.

Today, America gets raw resources from many nations, which depend on America for all kinds of high level manufactured goods from printers to jet fighters. An empire has a powerful and stable currency, much like the American dollar is today, and also can cripple small nations with economic sanctions. Historically, the Romans and other armies up to medieval times would have enough troops to surround an enemy and prevent supplies from reaching them. The British navy was large enough to blockade the ports of its enemies, as was the Union to the Confederate ports in The Civil War. Today, as business is war, so to speak, the United States displays considerable power when it places a tariff or embargo on a smaller state. During my trip to Taiwan this past summer, I was amazed how concerned people I met were about the US nullifying the UN resolution by going into Iraq. This was a largely muted issue in America as the media was mobilized to back “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

  • An empire often has weaker, allied if not subject nations.

The Aztec empire did not administer the lands it conquered. Rather these states were subjugated by tribute, and acted in addition as cushion states against the outside. Most all empires have a core region or nationality and the outlying territories act as buffer zones to enemy attack. It was very obvious during the era of the Soviet Union that Russia was the main power and its surrounding allied nations existed as an extension of its power.

  • An empire often has a cultural influence which extends far beyond official political. borders.

One of the most famous Coca-Cola commercials depicts a truck dropping off a cooler full of the drink to a rural African village. McDonald’s Golden Arches, movies, American culture is exported everywhere, and whether or not the local populace agrees with American politics and foreign policy, almost the entire world enjoys and to some degree desires to emulate American culture. In Roman times, the officials of outlying territories built coliseums, amphitheaters, and Roman style villas, as well as dressed like Roman aristocracy. Most of the languages of East Asia have origins that can be traced to some form of Chinese dialect. When a nation is strong, its appeal is in its power.

  • An empire often has a vast mobilizing ability and thus commands greater productivity.

An empire has enough diversity that it can call on diverse resources to achieve a goal most efficiently. Whether driven by ideological, economic, military, or political forces, all empires in history have arisen due to a disparity between a state’s tactical capabilities and its opponents. This disparity often arises from technology and a greater ability to organize. Starting from the Hittite army conquering Egypt with iron versus bronze weapons to the Roman empire mercilessly stomping out the ‘barbarians’ with catapults and legionnaires to modern day America firing cruise missiles into Iraq for nearly a month until the ground troops aided by GPS and laptops went in, technological/logistical ability is what allows an empire to exert its will.
Today, especially due to globalization and the electronic age, it no longer makes sense to define imperialism as something necessitating force. Imperialism can be defined as broadly as one country imposing will upon another. We can say that imperialism has to do with extension of beliefs onto foreigners, cultural assimilation and economic integration. The last sentence sounds a lot like the effects of globalization, one topic that will be touched upon later.

Is imperialism bad? That question is highly debatable, and it is an important question because the word imperialism has only recently taken on a negative context. It is used to describe a country behaving like a bully towards other states, but Frank Furedi in his book New Ideology of Imperialism points out that not long ago, “the moral claims of imperialism were seldom questioned in the west. Imperialism and the global expansion of the western powers were represented in unambiguously positive terms as a major contributor to human civilization" The United States exhibits imperialistic behavior arising from the need to protect interests. But without regard, this behavior is disrupts regional stability around the world. Still, US imperialism is not as malicious as some critics would make it out to be, rather it seems to be a natural extension of power; America’s meddling in the affairs of others is no different from what any strongman in a position of power would do in his own interests.

Is American Imperialism Different?

It has long been a tradition of American historians to prove that American intentions are not imperialistic. Joseph Schumpeter, in his 1919 article “Imperialism as a social atavism,” defines it as “the objectless disposition on the part of the state to unlimited forcible expansion.” This definition has two points worth mentioning. One, that imperialism must be objectless. Two, that the expansion is forcible, which Schumpeter later clarifies as military force. Marray Greene comments 35 years later: “[Schumpeter] develops a very specialized definition of imperialism which he then expounds with references to certain selected societies in history. He also sets up a very specialized definition of capitalism, which he then shows to be inconsistene with his definition of imperialism, thereby ‘proving’ that capitalism is anti-imperialist.” What exactly are the intentions of America?

Ernest May points out: “Instead of seeking, like European powers, to shut other nations out of colonial areas, the United States worked to insure that Americans were not excluded. Although this goal sometimes required acquisition of islands, since bases were needed both for trade and for the exercise of political and military influence, it did not require assumption of larger administrative responsibilities. Americans, by their competitive superiority, could achieve economic dominance without taking on such burdens.” In other words, May argues that the main reason why American imperialism did not take the form of conquering and holding land was that there was that cost-benefit analysis would provide more profit if the nations in question retained political autonomy yet opened their borders to trade with America. It is simply more advantageous for a capitalist society to secure the flow of trade (by breaking down barriers and raising our own tariffs as seen fit) rather than to secure land; the latter was indeed the mentality of a feudalistic society, the claiming of earth for little more than just that.

Criticisms of American Democracy

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the case of America’s success exemplified how democracy was indeed the superior form of government in a modern, industrialized world. During this time period, various international crises, world wars, and economic developments tested the strength of America’s democracy, for democracy in America may have passed all of these tests, but by what means? In other words, did these developments reveal any vulnerabilities and inconsistencies of American democracy? Charles Sumner, in “The Bequests of the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” criticizes American democracy for entrusting the uneducated people with too much power, for Sumner views the masses in a negative light, referring to them as “a mythological product with no definition” (Sumner, 216). Forty-five years later (1946), during the birth of the Cold War, Nikolai Novikov, a Soviet ambassador to the United States, criticizes American democracy for its imperialist tendencies and monopolistic capitalism. He suggests that America’s form of governance is in reality not democratic at all, for how can a country claim to be democratic and yet seek world domination? Lastly, Servan-Schreiber, in The American Challenge, points out many inconsistencies within American democracy that are mostly aimed at imperialist expansionism and self-interested, capitalist globalization. All of these critiques of American democracy share a common foundation, an element that has sustained nearly 70 years of history (1901-1968), and that is the element of hypocrisy in American policies. All three authors elaborate upon the hypocrisy of American democracy, for this foundation for criticism branches out to a plethora of weaknesses such as imperialism, yellow journalism, and monopolistic expansion.

By analyzing these critiques in a chronological order, starting with Sumner and ending with Servan-Schreiber, we can see how American democracy has been hypocritical in terms of foreign policy. By definition, democratic form of governance stands for freedom, liberty, and equality, but according to these criteria, American foreign policy in the early twentieth century was far from “democratic” and more like imperialistic. During William Sumner’s time, the Spanish-American War and Philippine Revolution were major concerns for American foreign policy. America surely did not implement a democratic policy because American troops brutally massacred Spanish troops in Cuba in order to protect their Latin American interests during the Spanish-American War (Kennedy, The United States in 1900, 4/4/02). Sumner criticizes this hypocritical action by stating, “Democracy assumes that numbers have a right in the natures of things to rule. Of course, that is entirely untrue. There is nobody who, in the nature of things, ought to rule” (Sumner, 218). Thus, Sumner condemns the American interventionist policy that incited a revolt in the Philippines and protected interests in Latin America because these imperialist actions sharply contrast with democratic principles. These two incidents at the turn of the century exemplified how American ideology was one of a “might is right” rule, where American democracy meant intervening in foreign affairs simply because America was stronger, which is contrary to the true meaning of democracy that is focused on peace and equality, not war and revolution.
Imperialism and the Cold War

Nikolai Novikov also lambastes American foreign policy by accusing the United States of preparing for world domination. Like Sumner, Novikov finds the hypocritical element in America’s democracy, but Novikov uses objective facts and figures to support his claim. During Novikov’s time, America was increasing expenditures on the army and navy, building nearly 500 new bases in the Atlantic and Pacific, and dispatching naval vessels throughout major European ports. All of these actions taken by the United States signaled the beginning of the Cold War. Novikov reacts by declaring, “All of these facts show clearly that a decisive role in the realization of plans for world dominance by the United States is played by its armed forces” (Novikov, 402). Another example of hypocrisy in American democracy was the policy towards the USSR during the post WWII period. According to Novikov, the United States was acting contrary to democratic principles by creating obstacles for the process of democratization in neighboring countries to the USSR. Novikov states, “Such a policy is intended to weaken and overthrow the democratic government in power there, which are friendly toward the USSR, and replace them in the future with new governments that would obediently carry out a policy dictated by the US” (Novikov, 403). If American foreign policy were truly democratic, why would the American government want to inhibit the spread of democracy? How can America preach for the spread of democracy in the world, while America herself is trying to prevent democratization in other countries? All in all, Novikov highlights the tension between expanding military forces and American democracy, for world domination and democracy do not go hand in hand. Therefore, one must conclude that American post WWII foreign policy was actually the antithesis of democracy and resembled imperialist tendencies.

Economic Imperialism in France

Twenty-two years later (1968), Servan-Schreiber denounces American democracy in a whole new light by writing from a technological and cultural standpoint, as opposed to the military one taken by both Sumner and Novikov. Servan-Schreiber believed that American industry in the 1960’s acted in imperialist ways by restraining French creativity, technology, and culture. He writes, “A nation holding a monopoly of power would look on imperialism as a kind of duty, and would take its own success as proof that the rest of the world should follow its example” (Schreiber, 102). This sort of “Americanization” conflicts with democracy, for democracy is supposed to support the freedom of ideas and culture. Therefore, American interests in France during the 1960’s presents a type of imperialism that exploited French resources during their time of reconstruction.

Another element of hypocrisy that can be traced through America’s form of democracy is the idea of the mass media and how it degraded into propaganda and yellow journalism. Alexis de Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America, “the power of newspapers must therefore grow as democracy spreads” (Tocqueville, 520). Over time, Tocqueville’s statement proved to be valid, for newspapers during twentieth century America wielded enormous power, but would this power have positive or negative effects on democracy? By definition, “democracy,” derived from the Greek word “demos” meaning “people”, is supposed to represent the views of the people. According to this definition then, Sumner proscribes that American journalism was the contraposition of democracy, for newspapers were sensationalist and not representative of the true public opinion. He writes, “The newspapers are, according to the conditions of the case, forced to catch everything as it flies” (Sumner, 227). This statement refers to the yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer that utilized sensationalist headlines to heighten tensions during the Spanish-American War in 1898 (Kennedy, America in 1900, 4/4/02). During the turn of the century, newspapers conflicted with American democracy because by definition, democracy is supposed to represent the views of the people, but yet, yellow journalism only represented sensationalist views and war propaganda.

America continued with their undemocratic press well into the post WWII era, for Novikov criticizes the American press for representing slanted anti-soviet sentiments. Novikov asserts, “The basic goal of this yellow American press is to exert political pressure on the Soviet Union and compel it to make concessions” (Novikov, 403). He continues to discuss how the American press created a war psychosis among the masses. Therefore, Novikov and Sumner both view the American press as a tool for brainwashing the public and creating a sensationalist atmosphere; both of these critiques point out the hypocritical element in American journalism, for America’s press in the early twentieth century did not follow democratic principles.

The final hypocritical element found in America’s practice of democracy is the idea of capitalism and monopolistic expansion. Sumner shows great concern for the balance between economic policy and democracy, for he states, “The contest of democracy is the contest between the economic power and opportunity mentioned at the outset and the political conditions under which it must be carried on” (Sumner, 231). During Sumner’s time, the American government was starting to intervene in economic affairs by instituting the Interstate Commerce Commission and acting against previous Laissez-Faire policies. These actions concerned Sumner, who regarded government intervention in the economic sphere as undemocratic. For Sumner, democracy meant Free Trade and the right to own and trade property without government rules and regulations; however, American policies at that time were taking a “trust-busting” attitude, an attitude that was criticized by Sumner as being undemocratic.

Did America continue its interventionist, monopolistic policy into the post WWII era? According to Servan-Schreiber, America is guilty of hypocrisy from an economic point of view. Schreiber asserts, “If the first criticism is that the Americans dry up the capital market, the second is that they force salary hikes because they offer higher wages” (Schreiber, 23). Thus, does invading an economically unstable country during a time of reconstruction and forcing higher prices and wages for self-interested, monetary gain adhere to democratic principles? This is exactly what America did in the 1960’s to the French market and industry. Moreover, America’s free trade policy only benefited the US, for Schreiber protests, “the free exchange policy opens an enormous free trade zone and an industrial market of global scope to American industry, but where in all this is there any sign of European power?” (Schreiber, 104).

During Schreiber’s time, the Marshall Plan had rebuilt France by setting up American industries using French capital, and the Treaty of Rome had established free and fair trade for the new European Common Market (Sheehan, 4/30/02). However, America’s monopoly on technology, creativity, and industry exploited French resources and workers, thus displaying the inconsistency between American expansion and democracy, for democracy means free and fair trade, not the exploitation of a weaker nation for economic gain.

Over the time period from 1901 to 1968, democracy in the United States sustained serious criticisms in regards to foreign policy, media, and capitalism; all of these criticisms shared the common foundation of hypocrisy, the idea of representing and preaching a specific principle in theory, but in reality, acting contrary to that principle. The criticisms raised by Sumner, Servan-Schreiber, and Novikov exemplify how even the most powerful, stable country under a democratic form of government is susceptible to weaknesses and hypocrisy in their practice of democratic principles. Nonetheless, no country under a democratic form of government is perfect, for even with all the criticisms of imperialism, yellow journalism, and monopolistic expansion, America remained the paramount showcase for the success of democracy in a modern, industrialized world.

American Foreign Policy:

The Savior, the Restorer,

In the twentieth century, American foreign policy took on many different roles, each interdependent of the other. During World War I and World War II, democratic nations around the world called for American assistance in the fight against world domination; American foreign policy assumed the role as the Savior, the Savior of democracy, freedom, and peace. Compared to other countries in Europe and Asia, the US remained unharmed and actually benefited from the destruction of World War II, for America was able to boost her economy out of depression through wartime production. As countries such as Germany, Japan, and France lay crippled and ruined, American foreign policy took on the responsibility of rebuilding these countries through the Marshall Plan and investments in industry; American foreign policy assumed the role as the Restorer, the Restorer of industry and economy. Why did America assume these roles as the Savior and the Restorer? Moreover, in playing these roles, did American foreign policy act in Imperialist ways? These questions can be answered by analyzing the causes and developments of the Cold War in chronological order. All in all, America took on these roles to provide for American self-interest, self-preservation, and economic expansion, and in doing so, America contracted the label as the Imperialist.
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